1929 - 1994

Bessie Harvey

Alcoa, Tennessee

    This is Bessie Harvey, folk artist, so I'm called. I'm really not the artist. God is the artist in my work; nature and insects, they shape my work for me, because they belong to God. I belong to God, and all things belong to God, because it's in his Word that all things are made to him, that without him there's not anything made. I know that my art is a peculiar kind of an art, but he says that his people are peculiar people and I just want to give all the praise and glory to him for my work. My work is something that tells of love, and he is love, so he let the insects and time and nature go in front and do the work and then he gives me the insight to bring it out. He uses the hands that he gave to me with his spirit in the hands and in the mind and in the heart and just in me, he's all in me, and he expects me to bring it out, so that I can tell the world today that he is my life and he is the artist in my work.


    There is a piece that's called The Poison of the Lying Tongues. He speaks of the tongue so much of being a thing that will cause us to go down in great sorrow, because the tongue has never been tamed. He speaks that all animals and everything in the earth has been tamed by mankind except the tongue, and it cannot be tamed, tongues coming out of the lying mouth, and it's saying to the world today, that the tongue can't be tamed. So before you use it to say things that will hurt yourself or someone else, remember that love covers a multitude of faults, and it's a fault to go around hurting others.

    My greatest hope is in my believing and trusting and knowing, from self-experience, that truly, God is real. The art is magic, he's majestic, and the art is from him, so it is magic. But for it to be good for you is to know that Bessie Harvey is not magic, only the one that lives within her, the spirit, is the magic one.

    I came from a family of ten children, and my mom was an alcoholic. My father died when we were all very young, and I came up without guidance, except for what the spirit that lived within me taught me. There was a lot of hurt, and I was afraid to show myself. I was trying to talk to mankind, but I knew from a child that I had a friend in nature, which was the trees, the grass, and the wind, all the things that God had sent here, to keep me and to grow me up, that even in knowing that in him, there is peace, joy, happiness, prosperity, healing. Anything that I needed, he had.

    I used to question it, because my mom was an alcoholic, and I had sisters and a brother younger than I, and it was rough, so I would say, "Why didn't Momma die and Daddy live?" and I complained that I didn't have a father down to myself to the trees, to nature, because I dared not talk to mankind, because they didn't understand and they could hurt me more. So the spirit told me, "I am your father, I am your daddy, and I can do all things for you—all the things that a daddy could have done, an earthly daddy, I would have had to give him the power to do, and I'll do it for you, you are my child, and I will never leave you, neither will I forsake you." And I believed that, and I found it to be true.

    When I was at my lowest point on the earth, thinking that I just couldn't make it any further, bringing up eleven children, almost alone except for welfare, and whatever I could do to help make a living for them, fourth-grade education, you can't do much, but God enlightened me. He taught me how to read the Word, which is him, and it said that he would give me a favor, with him and with mankind, and in the art. That's what he gave me, and he gave me a favor through the work that he has allowed me to do, through him, with the hands that he gave me to work for him, and I'm so thankful that I get the opportunity to say in the work that God loves us all and he is God, regardless of whatever you believe him to be, whatever you believe it to be, it is your God. But there is but one, and that's the great "I am," and every one of us use the words "I am," and the great "I am" has established his love and himself within us, that we be just as we say "I am."

    I am the sculptress that God has taught me to be, allowing me to be, through loving him, believing and trusting in him, knowing that the little girl was put into my mother's womb so many years ago. My mom told me that I was born with a disease, tuberculosis, and the doctors had told her that I wouldn't live to get six months old, so, with all the other kids, she just kind of, I thought, didn't love me. But she told me before she died in '74, she said, "Bessie Ruth, God is going to bless you," and she told me that she never got too close to me because she was always afraid of losing me. But see, the Mighty One had already put this there, that I would go through these trials and tribulations, that I would understand today a mother with a lot of children needing somebody to talk to. I would be that one, because I never had that one, and it is a pleasure to reach out to anybody in love, when you haven't had it yourself. Sometimes it makes us mean, but then, whom God set free, the Son, Jesus, we're free indeed, and he set me free. I didn't know how to hate, because he is love, so everything that comes against me, I replaced it with love.

    And not being able to give it to mankind, I started doing the little people that he allowed me to make, and I could talk to them about my problems, and sometimes I would make one and it would look straight at me, in my eyes, and I would ask it questions like "Who are you? Where did you come from?" It would say "An artist." I didn't know nothing about being an artist! I'd never been in an art show, I never even studied art. I'm a fourth-grade graduate, and back in the times that I was going to school, art wasn't taught, until you were in, I guess, the last years of high school or something like that.

    But even when I began to do the sculptures, to me they were my dolls, they were my freedom from this world, that I could go into them, and I could talk to God, and that the spirit would release me from all of the hurt, and I could hear him speak and talk to me. I could see in the eyes of the dolls I could love, sometimes confusion, but I knew that they were there for the purpose of me sharing what I felt with them. And I began to even see them in the walls, in the paneling, and they were all reaching out to me in love, and I began to make more and more and more.

    I went to work at a hospital here, and I worked there, and I was so thankful to have a job, that I could earn a little money, more than I had ever earned before. And I got there in time for the show that they have at the hospital. They have a little art show every year, and I had a piece that was called Banda. It was a big bird that would fly me away when troubles were so strong that I couldn't take any more. And I sold Banda, and, oh, boy, I thought I was so rich when I got paid for Banda. And the spirit said to me, "Child, you haven't seen anything yet."

    And he has continually blessed the works of my hands, that he worked through, and showed me that I was loved very much by him, and that because he loved me, I was to tell the world about his love, and about his goodness, and about the art. Because the prayer "Our father who art”—is A-R-T, same as art, that is considered art in the earth. So I thought about this thing, and then I realized that he had made me a little creator—all artists are little creators—like he is. He is a Creator of all things, and he will allow artists to also create. But it is for the purpose of showing love, and if an evil person creates art, it's dangerous, same as we are when we not in love. We should always be in love with righteousness, and when we see a good piece of art, that the spirit reaches out, and says "I love you," or "You need me," or "I need you," and then good things begin to happen in your life. Then we know that there is a spirit in the wood, which is a good spirit.

    I didn't know when I was young that the trees praise God. I didn't know that, but when I got older, and got in touch, for real, with the One that had walked this long walk with me, I began to read and study the Word. And it said that the trees praise God, they clap their hands. And I was drawn into a tree, some kind of way. And I kind of see the Scriptures a little different to some people, because I see people as trees, living trees, and I see our fruits that we bear, some good and some bad. But we're not responsible when we use the bad fruit, and the one that has the good fruit is to show good fruit to the one that has bad fruit, that they will learn to enjoy good fruit, and not hate the corrupt fruit within them. And then that way we are building a place for the Paradise to return. But as long as we hate and can't love, as long as we judge and think we're not judged, as long as we condemn and not be condemned, so we think the world will never be what God intended it to be. It is to be a Paradise, is to be peace and love, from all colors, because the colors is just the skin.

    The true person lives within the temple, and if they have in the temple the righteous things, then it shines through, the candle is lit, the lantern is burning bright, and it comes out in the things that we do, which is our fruit. And to have the wood, the clay, the metal, all things that he gives me to do, and not know that I was considered an artist in the earth, I didn't think this could happen to me, I never dreamed it could happen to me. Then met this woman at the hospital, and she saw my little people, because I'd done poems for the sick people. I would sneak away from my work, and go into the rooms with the sick people where they went to go to get well, and I would try to bring a little joy into their lives. I would tell them poems out of my heart, that God gave to me to give to them, and I would bring my wood and tell them about God's love.

    My art has been blessed and sent all over, and I've been seen on television, and all of this is just to say that God is God, and there is no other. He is a jealous God, and I will have no other God before him. The art is his, and I'm blessed to be the one to do it, and in it there is no evil, because in him there is no evil. He lives in me, and I in him, so anybody that purchased the work, or looks upon the work, I truly believe you are blessed. If you see it as an instrument of love, there is no evil, it is an instrument of love. And I do thank and praise God for taking it as far as it's gone, and I know he will take it the rest of the way, even if I go to be with him, the spirit will still be in the wood, and it will tell the sweet old story of Jesus and his love.

    So I just want everyone to know that the people that have listened to me and the people that know that there are some of us that come to the trash can to eat, some of us have come to the king's table, but God has blessed me that I am able to praise him, to sit down at the Lord's table, even if it is the trash can, and share love with the straw-poor brother in the earth. I'll just sit at the king's table and tell him I know a king bigger than he, that owns his kingdom and him too, and the art is a symbol of the same God that I'm speaking of, my art.

    I think of art as being like a puzzle. There are so many pieces to be placed and if they're placed in the right way, one day we will see the results of what art is really about, and we will know that we haven't been let down by being small creators labeled as artists. I guess I should have a lot more to say right now, but I only say what the spirit allows me to, and this is it, this is what he wanted me to do. Thank you for being patient with me, because anybody that doesn't do art, or poems, or talk through the spirit, cannot understand that you can't do this just when you want to, you have to do it when he allows you to—the work, the speeches, and the talking about yourself. So I hope this will be a help to whoever uses it, to benefit the work that has Bessie Harvey's name on it, and God bless you.

    This material is derived from an interview conducted in 1994 by Jenifer P. Borum.

    The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse

    The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse

    This exhibition catalogue to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse chronicles the pervasive visual and sonic parallels in the work of Black artists from the southern United States.

    Revelations: Art from the African American South

    Revelations: Art from the African American South

    While the artists featured in this groundbreaking catalog were born in the Jim Crow period of institutionalized racism, their works embody the promise and attainment of freedom in the modern Civil Rights era and address some of the most profound and persistent issues in American society, including race, class, gender, and spirituality. Originally created as expressions of individual identity and communal solidarity, these eloquent objects are powerful testaments to the continuity and survival of African American culture. This gorgeous book features lush illustrations of works by artists such as Thornton Dial, Bessie Harvey, Purvis Young, and the Gee's Bend quilters--including Gearldine Westbrook, Jessie T. Pettway, and more--and presents a series of insightful essays.

    When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South

    When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South

    "When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South" queries the category of "outsider" art in relation to contemporary art and black life. The catalogue includes entries by Thomas J. Lax, along with leading scholars Horace Ballard, Katherine Jentleson, Scott Romine and Lowery Stokes Sims, who write on notions of spirituality, the ethics of self-taught art and the idea of the South in the American project.
    Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art, Vol. 2

    Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art, Vol. 2

    Completing the two-volume set, "Souls Grown Deep, Vol. 2" takes the visual and historical presentation of the first volume to a richer level, offering an even broader array of artistic styles and media. Breaking away from the stereotypes that identity folk art and the South with rural, isolated, static and agrarian ways of life, these pages unveil an art that embodies social change and continues to flourish at the dawn of a new century.
    Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art, Vol. 1

    Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art, Vol. 1

    The African American culture of the South has produced many of the twentieth century’s most innovative art forms. Widely appreciated for its music—from the blues and jazz, to gospel, soul, rock ‘n’ roll—the region has also played host to a less visible but equally important visual art tradition.

    The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse

    The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse

    Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
    May 22, 2021 to September 6, 2021

    The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse investigates the aesthetic impulses of early 20th-century Black culture that have proved ubiquitous to the southern region of the United States.

    We Will Walk – Art and Resistance in the American South

    We Will Walk – Art and Resistance in the American South

    Turner Contemporary
    February 7, 2020 to September 6, 2020

    We Will Walk – Art and Resistance in the American South is the first exhibition of its kind in the UK and reveals a little-known history shaped by the Civil Rights period in the 1950s and 60s. It will bring together sculptural assemblages, paintings and quilts by more than 20 African American artists from Alabama and surrounding states.

    Souls Grown Deep: Artists of the African American South

    Souls Grown Deep: Artists of the African American South

    Philadelphia Museum of Art
    June 8, 2019 to September 2, 2019

    The Philadelphia Museum of Art presents Souls Grown Deep: Artists of the African American South, an exhibition including paintings, sculptures, and quilts that celebrates the recent acquisition of 24 works from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

    Revelations: Art from the African American South

    Revelations: Art from the African American South

    de Young Museum
    June 3, 2017 to April 1, 2018

    "Revelations: Art from the African American South" celebrates the debut of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco major acquisition from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in Atlanta of 62 works by contemporary African American artists from the Southern United States.

    When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South

    When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South

    The Studio Museum in Harlem
    March 27, 2014 to June 29, 2014

    "When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South" queries the category of “outsider” art in relation to contemporary art and black life. With the majority of work having been made between 1964 and 2014, the exhibition brings together a group of thirty-five intergenerational American artists who share an interest in the U.S. South as a location both real and imagined.

    Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South

    Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South

    Michael C. Carlos Museum at City Hall East
    June 29 - November 3, 1996
    "Souls Grown Deep: African-American Vernacular Art of the South," a groundbreaking exhibition of over 450 artworks by some 30 contemporary artists, highlighting a significant artistic tradition that has risen in concert with the Civil Rights Movement. This exhibition presents an art form that is universal in its appeal and currency yet highly individuated in its origins within the African-American South.

    Bessie Harvey: Slaughter of the Innocents

    Theophus Smith

    The sinister and the malign are directly represented in Bessie Harvey's Poison of the Lying Tongues, and even more vividly (if possible) in her Slaughter of the Innocents. The pyramidal shape of Slaughter is created by a stack of human bodies, piled up and impaled, or seeming speared, by a central obelisk. (Compare the title and theme of Peter Berger's Pyramids of Sacrifice.) A scene of apparent ritual sacrifice confronts the viewer: a scene made all too vivid by the blood-drenched yellow obelisk piercing the stack of pitch-black bodies. In fact, multiple contexts of human viciousness are reprised by this work. For example, the exploitation of slave labor (the innumerable bodies expended to build civilizations like our own or, indeed, to build monuments like the Pyramids), the myriad victims of ritual sacrifice generated by archaic religions, the genocidal fury of mobs and tyrants, the rationalized massacres of holy-war and of "just-war" statecraft, and finally the most ordinary human brutality, manifested in feuding, in scapegoating, in countless persecutions: all slaughters are represented here.

    However, the title of the work and the black-as-midnight coloring of the human figures also signify more specific references. First of all, the phrase "slaughter of the innocents" is a biblical or gospel allusion (Matthew 2:16-18) referring to King Herod's murder of all the newborn boys in Bethlehem in an unsuccessful effort to destroy the Christ child. The scripture text itself refers this event to an even more ancient Hebrew prophecy from Jeremiah, "Rachel weeping for her children, [who] would not be comforted, because they are not" (Jeremiah 31:15). But these innocent children have been especially commemorated in medieval European art and piety as holy victims of anti-Christian persecution across the centuries. Harvey's work is yet another, in this case, African American, appropriation of the holy-victims theme (the work itself does not seem to limit the victims to children). In this regard, we are induced by the artist's context of life and work to call to mind all the victims of racial violence directed against black people in the Americas, from the inauguration of the slave trade, up to and including the most recent instances of violent victimization.

    The brutally phallic representation of violence here is also noteworthy. In addition to its pyramidal shape, the central yellow form also resembles the swords and spears used to slaughter the "innocents" of the biblical story. (Classical medieval European art most often shows Roman soldiers with swords in hand snatching infants from their frenzied mothers and preparing to slay them.) The identification of phallic shapes with swords and knives derives, of course, from primal sexual symbolism in which the penis is an organ that pierces, penetrates, incises. On the one hand we should not overlook the artist's signifying use of that form to indicate malign force, and the use of vivid black and red colors for flesh and blood (compare, again, her Poison of the Lying Tongues for its similar phallic symbolism and color coding). Such representations, however, are not naively anti-male with respect to the weapon-like, genital shape, or ethnocentric with respect to the color coding of the victims. Rather, as with the child's scooter in Lonnie Holley's Thou Shall Not, a conjurational work of this type functions like a curse with a curative intention: "Thou shall not" is the incantatory trajectory (to borrow Holley's signification), or "Never again!" The artist's role as conjuror of social transformation is thoroughly evident here in the intent to induce new forms of reality that do not require any more "slaughter of innocents." We the observers must prove in our own spheres of existence whether Harvey's work—her "mojo" (charm)—is potent enough to work-the-spirits and exorcise in us homo lupus and homo necans—the human being as (vicious) wolf, the human being as chronic death-dealer.

    "Bessie Harvey"

    Jenifer Borum

    I was lucky enough to spend time with Bessie Harvey during the final year of her life—first in New Orleans, then again in New Jersey (in both instances she had traveled to attend major group exhibitions featuring her work), and finally at her home in Alcoa, Tennessee, about three months before she died. She was extremely sick, suffering from the illness that ended her life too soon, but her kindness, spiritual insight, and sense of inner strength made a strong impression on me. When she died, I made her into my own personal saint—I lit candles, and I dedicated an issue of a magazine I edited to her. But at this writing, nearly a year and a half after her death, I realize that I've been guilty of the very same starry-eyed romanticism that has consistently trivialized discussions of self-taught artists at the expense of achieving a real understanding of their work. Bessie Harvey was no saint, but instead an accomplished artist whose work has yet to receive the serious critical attention it deserves.

    More so than their mainstream counterparts, self-taught artists are made to serve a variety of agendas that have little to do with their work. To be sure, this has been true in Harvey's case—for every art world spin, one can find a different, ready-made Bessie Harvey (or "Bessie," as she's referred to by curators and historians who would never dream of calling Louise Bourgeois "Louise" unless they knew her personally). In flipping through catalogs of exhibitions from the last decade or so, a number of disparate "Bessies" emerge: Bessie the folk artist, Bessie the eccentric outsider artist, Bessie the religious visionary, Bessie the consummate cultural Other, and of course, Bessie the beloved token self-taught minority, this last an amalgam of all the other Bessies put together (and several more) for the benefit of the larger art-viewing public—each identity coming complete with its own narrative, tailored to account for her life and work. These stories go something like this: Bessie the folk artist was born in 1929 in rural Georgia, married young, and had a large family, and began making dolls out of clay, wood, beads, shells, and feathers in order to pass her later years in rural Tennessee; Bessie the outsider artist suffered at the hands of an alcoholic mother and later an abusive husband, eventually saw "faces" everywhere she looked and was thereby compelled to make grotesque sculptures to ease her troubled mind; Bessie the religious visionary, born in the Deep South on the eve of the Great Depression, was blessed by God with a gift to see the world of spirits and to bring these visions to life in sculptures according to his divine will; Bessie the cultural Other, of both African American and Native American heritage, was an earthy voodoienne who made root sculptures in the Congo nkisi tradition to celebrate her ancestry; and finally, to construct the narrative for Bessie the token self-taught minority (available for inclusion in large mainstream group shows in need of diversity), simply combine all of the above.

    Although these popular stereotypes work to misrepresent Harvey's life and work, each one—however distorted to spin an angle for the entertainment of a particular audience or market—contains a kernel of truth. Her upbringing was indeed southern rural, her life troubled and filled with abuse and hardship, her creative impulse primarily spiritual, her heritage a rich diasporic mixture. Yet to construct Harvey's identity from one or more of these nonart factors is to represent her oeuvre as an accidental, compulsive result of her life's circumstances, and not the product of her own creative response to them. The former perspective renders her Bessie the lovable victim; the latter, Harvey the formidable artist.

    Of all the stereotypes that have been used to characterize Harvey's work, the one that must be salvaged and thoroughly rewritten is that of "visionary," an empty word with a misleadingly narrow valence unless qualified in the case of each individual artist it is used to describe. To simply reiterate Harvey's own definition of her artistic vision ("God is the artist in my work . . .") in lieu of a considered critical analysis is irresponsible and inherently patronizing—an attitude that pervades even the most sincere attempts, by secular cynics and sympathetic clergy alike, to discuss the artwork of religious visionaries—and undermines the complex conceptual and aesthetic concerns that comprise it. Far from a sugar-coated psychosis, her vision must be recognized as a personal, theological, philosophical, social, and aesthetic world view, not something that happened to her, but a willful response to her life and culture. While the dark, contorted Beast from Revelation resulted from an interpretation of a New Testament text, works such as the ornate The Tribal Man (African King) and the colorful African Woman (Twella) represent Harvey's reclamation of her African heritage, determined by her strong personal belief in reincarnation. The powerful social commentary found in the bloody Slaughter of the Innocents is balanced in other pieces by flights of fancy. Yet all of these works belong to the same dynamic aesthetic process, a palpable give-and-take between intuition and calculation, spirit and intellect, faith and reason, nature and artifice, individual and culture, love and hate, God and Bessie Harvey. Edgy, risk-taking, sophisticated, and painfully unapologetic, Harvey's oeuvre, although easily contextualized within any number of narrow genres, must be recognized as a powerful contemporary statement.